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Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Colonizing Space" is a Dirty Phrase: Stop Using It

The term "colonize" is not neutral.  It's an impossibly negative term.  It immediately references an extensive socio-political, socio-economic, racialized, and vile process that still churns its wheels today.  Colonialism always was and always will be an exploitative model which privileges dominant socio-economic groups (I hesitate to say "Western" here, though it would be fair to suggest that colonialism benefits the West more than other colonialist groups).  We can thank colonialism for the massive growth of the slave trade in the Americas, the deliberate attempts to exterminate non-white groups across the globe, the irreparable destruction of native land, the theft and destruction of property, culture, language, etc. and so on.  The fact that its engines still
churn today in the form of the tourist industry, the continued denial of compensation for subaltern groups for damages rendered (and still rendering in places where U.S. imperialism led to the irradiation of indigenous land in the Pacific), and in foreign and domestic policy highlights the fact that to "colonize" is not to perform a neutral action, nor to imply a neutrality.  To "colonize" is to subjugate, destroy, rape, murder, exploit, and so on.
This is what colonialism looks like:  fat old white guys exploiting the innocent.
And so, when we use the term "colonize" to refer to things like human settlement in space, we are, in fact, playing into a socio-political game given to us by the Pulp and Golden Ages of science fiction (both of which were in the thick of imperialist and colonialist enterprises).  This game is one which attempts, intentionally or otherwise, to redefine colonialism so as to dampen its political implications, which is another way of saying that colonialism really isn't all that bad.  In effect, when we say we're going to "colonize space" we are trying to say something other than what the word means, which makes it possible to silence the collective history the term actually signals.  To put it another way:  our willy-nilly use of the term "colonize" is an extension of the colonial process itself, since you, in fact, are appropriating the legacy of colonialism for your own purposes.  There is a duality at work here:  the suppression of reality alongside the perpetuation of the old history that normalized such suppressive forces.

The fact that to "colonize" cannot imply a neutral without playing into the legacy I've thus far described means we need to start thinking about human involvement in space within different terms.  "Settlement" would be a much more effective term, since it has always signaled a multitude.  Yes, to "settle" was always a part of the colonial enterprise, but it has also always referred to the process of settlement, which may or may not involve the settlement of spaces owned or occupied by others.  For science fiction, this seems like a perfect term to use, since the genre often imagines human settlement as encompassing the varieties of the old forms of settlement.  Humans in science fiction settle on uninhabited asteroids, moons, or planets, but they also sometimes colonize planets that don't belong to them, which is a kind of settlement to begin with (albeit, a violent form).

So, if possible, could we stop referring to our extension into the stars as "colonizing space" and instead call it "settling space?"  It is a) a much more effective term for encompassing the varieties of human expansion, and b) a term which avoids the political implications of misuse.

But maybe my endless study of colonialism and postcolonialism has tainted me.  What do you think?

(This post is partly in response to Nicholos Wethington's post at Lightspeed about colonizing the solar system.  I don't disagree with the project, per se, but I do thing the term is a problematic one as indicated above.)

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  1. I take issue with two of your contentions: I know the word colonize is loaded from some perspectives but

    there's no one in space for the fat white guys to exploit.

    If there were three-legged Martians inhabiting the sand dunes of Mars I wouldn't worry either - they'll just make the trouble makers "not be" anymore.

    The amphibious Venusians demonstrated that they can take care of themselves also (Space Cadet) and of the dragon-like Venerians the same is true (Between Planets).

    If Mars is inhabited by Wellsian types, well, it's about time we kicked their asses for what happened back in the 1800s, dontchya think?

    The other thing I take issue with is your statement: "we are, in fact, playing into a socio-political game given to us by the Pulp and Golden Ages of science fiction (both of which were in the thick of imperialist and colonialist enterprises)"

    huh wuh? John W. Campbell was exploiting Africa? Hugo Gernsback had plantations?

  2. It's not strictly relevant if there are creatures for us to exploit in space. The term itself never actually refers to a benign kind of settlement. Using it to suggest that it has a benign connotation is an attempt to whitewash the history loaded into the term by centuries of oppression, genocide, theft, and so on.

    The Pulp and Golden Ages arose in a period of intense imperialist/colonialist expansion, particularly in regards to America, which spent 75+ years (through the Pulp and Golden Ages right into the beginning of the New Wave) hopping islands, exploiting Islanders, annexing territories, and so on. The years before that the U.S. had used to commit genocide against the Native Americas.

    The Gernsbackian and Campbellian science fiction eras were, as such, infused with the colonial legacies of the time, imagining the "colonization of space" in all its grand glory at the same time as the U.S. was masking its culpability in the abuse of natives and native land in the South Pacific, etc. They paved the way to making "colonizing" an OK term to use when we refer to space, and so also paved the way to put a collective shield over our eyes when we talk about "colonizing" in certain contexts. That's a huge problem.